The ghost of sectarian violence appears to be stalking authoritarian but boastfully secular Azerbaijan, with local clashes and the resurgence of jihadism in Iraq and Syria casting a long shadow.
Several Shi’a Muslims, adherents to this Caucasus country’s dominant religion, recently forcibly shaved the beard of a Sunni man from an alleged Wahhabi group in the town of Sabirabad, 170 kilometers southwest of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. A mobile video of the attack was posted on YouTube on July 4, but promptly removed.
The police launched a probe into the incident and religious officials have condemned it, but, apparently, not fast enough for some people. Local news reports claim that, in an apparent retaliatory attack on July 5, Wahhabi men beat several Shi’a believers in a village on the outskirts of Baku during an iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast.
“This is the tragedy of a man, who, after the Soviet period, is not allowed to live his faith and to proselytize,” Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a prominent religious-rights scholar and imam, commented to SalamNews.org about the beard-shaving incident. “This is the tragedy of an Azerbaijani man who goes from one extreme to another.”
Ibragimoglu blamed the confrontations on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group that allegedly has recruited many followers in Azerbaijan. “But this gives absolutely no right to anyone to shave the beard of every bearded man who comes along,” he underlined.
Without getting much into sources, news reports from Azerbaijan have claimed that the self-proclaimed pan-Islamic caliphate of the ISIS has scared up scores of recruits from Azerbaijan, mainly from the industrial city of Sumgayit. The trend has alarmed both government officials and Shi’a leaders, although, as one analyst commented to EurasiaNet.org, the city is not the only source of Syria-bound Azerbaijani jihadists.
Critics hold that the Azerbaijani government’s attempts to rein in any post-Soviet resurgences of Islamic faith, and its record for crackdowns on dissidents, have only encouraged this jihadist trend.
For years, the main threat of radical Islam was believed to emanate from neighboring Iran, but now, with the rise of ISIS, Baku may argue it needs to fight on several fronts.